Courtesy seriykotik1970First thing’s first: I’m not sure I can recommend that you see the new Indiana Jones movie. Have I seen it? As a matter of fact, I haven’t. Am I up on Hollywood buzz? Possibly, but only because I’m not sure what “Hollywood buzz” is exactly. I’m certainly not up on anything Indiana Jones 4 related.
This is a science blog, so is my issue with the archaeology? Is it bad archaeology? Absolutely it’s bad archaeology (more on that in a moment), but no, that’s not it. As it happens, I love bad archaeology most of all.
No, here’s why I don’t think you should see the new Indiana Jones: dude’s old.
Consider this: Do any of you remember seeing the “Young Indiana Jones” tv series? Remember how it ironically featured the occasional old Indiana Jones? Was that fun seeing Indy as a staggering octogenarian? Answer: no, not fun. Don’t believe me? See for yourselves. Guy’s old. How are you supposed to punch Nazis and outrun boulders like that? Also—a side note—couldn’t he save a bunch of money if he just bought monocles?
No, Indiana Jones 4 is just the prequel to old Indiana Jones. It’s going to be all about arthritis and staying regular. If I wanted to see a movie about “I’m too old for this spit,” I’d watch the Lethal Weapon trilogy, and maybe Lethal Weapon 4. In fact, maybe I will watch the Lethal Weapon trilogy (but not Lethal Weapon 4) tonight. But only for detective Martin Riggs, not for the gray hair and male girdle jokes.
Wait a second. Did I say that this was a science blog? I did—here’s the citation “This is a science blog.” So onto something like science!
Indiana Jones is all about bad archaeology. I’ll say again, however, that bad archaeology is totally fun, but it shouldn’t be confused with real archaeology. Did you ever notice how pretty much every site Indy visits, he destroys? The temple of the Hovitos, the Well of Souls, the Thuggee mine and shrine to Kali, the catacombs under Venice, the resting place of the grail in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon? All crush, collapsed, burned, or flooded.
To be clear, archaeological excavation constitutes, in many respects, the destruction of the site itself. It’s like dissecting a frog—it never works out well for the frog itself, but you can learn a lot about him by doing it. And archaeology is done very slowly. Notes and drawings are made, samples are taken, and it’s all followed up by hundreds of hours in a lab, looking at everything again. Very rarely does the destruction of a site involve sprinting through an ancient temple, clutching a creepy fertility idol.
Crystal skulls pop up now and again in archaeology, or at least in the antiquities trade. And there are about a dozen of them, in particular, that have been the subject of considerable interest and skepticism. In the late 19th century, a handful of crystal skulls turned up on the antiquities scene, reputedly coming from Aztec/Olmec/Toltec/Maya temples (distinct Central American cultures, but, for the purposes of modern-day occult fixations, probably interchangeable). The smaller of the skulls are generally agreed to be large beads, probably used in Mexican catholic practice at one point. On the other hand, the larger skulls, ranging a couple of inches on either side of life size, are magic.
That’s right, the skulls, carved of solid quartz, and scattered across the world in museums and the hands of private collectors, are freakin’ magic. Used properly, they can grant health and luck to the bearer, and death to his or her enemies. Also, UFO’s—held at a certain angle, in a certain light, it is said that the crystal depths of the skulls will reveal the unmistakable image of a flying saucer. Because we all know what a flying saucer looks like so well, we would know if we were being shown a fake. And—most importantly—some say that the 12 skulls (and a missing 13th skull) must be united before the end of the Mayan calendar (12/21/2012), or the Earth will fly off its axis. You totally know that this would suck, so start skull questing.
Anyway, all this stands to reason, right? You’ve got your skulls, your crystal skulls. You’ve got you’re mysterious, vanished people (who, you know, aren’t actually gone). Logically there are going to be some magical powers in there.
Courtesy Public domainNot so, say scientists across Europe. The authenticity of the skulls has been under question for some time, with jewelers and museum archaeologists pointing out that they were detailed with a jeweler’s drill, and polished by a wheeled machine. The wheel thing is problematic, seeing as how the Mayans never did a whole lot with the wheel, at least not mechanically. The obvious answer is that aliens gave the skulls to the Mayans (or Aztecs, or Olmecs, or Teotihuacán, take your pick), and aliens are, of course, swimming in diamond drills and wheels. Unafraid of forces they could never hope to understand, though, researchers from the French national museum service have subjected the “Paris Skull” to particle induced x-ray emission and Raman spectroscopy. And what did those spoil sports find? In addition to the clear evidence of modern tools being used to shape the skull, the quartz it’s made of comes from the Alps, not Central America. The crystal skull belonging to the British Museum is made of Brazilian quartz, although it likewise sports modern tool makes, and the Mayans aren’t known to have had any cultural connections to Brazil. Specifically, both skulls are thought to have come from a village in Southern Germany that specialized in carving just that sort of thing for crucifix bases, which might explain the identical holes on the top and bottom of the French skull. What’s more, there’s documentation that most of the skulls out there came from a Eugene Boban, a dealer of pre-Columbian artifacts, known to have slipped a few fakes in now and again.
Another skull, the “Skull of Doom,” turned up a little later than the other crystal skulls. It was supposedly dug from a temple in Belize by a British explorer, who claimed that it was at least 3,600 years old, and “used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites. It is said that, when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed.” The power of the Skull of Doom has apparently diminished to reports of emitting blue light, and causing the deaths of computer hard drives. And it’s also probably a fake. Or a fake of a fake even—it was probably bought by the explorer for 400 pounds from Sotheby’s in 1943.
Don’t let all this keep you from your skull quest, though. They are skulls made of crystal, after all. What more evidence do you need for their ability to keep us from spinning hopelessly into outer space in 2012?
Every month we pull an object out of the Science Museum of Minnesota's collections and put it on display here at the museum and let you write your own label for the object. This month's we found a catfish skull and it looks particularly cool to my eyes. It's spiky and and kinda looks like it has a mohawk.
What do you think about this unique fish? Head on over to the object of the month and try your hand at writing a label.
Sauropod dinosaurs—like the Diplodocus (dip-LOW-duh-cus) in the Dinosaurs and Fossils Gallery—had big bodies and teeny heads. Their fragile skulls were paper-thin in places. This means sauropod heads are among the rarest of dinosaur finds. Paleontologists have found about a dozen skulls from the Jurassic Period (208-144 million years ago), but no complete Cretaceous Period (144-65 million years ago) skulls in North America. Until now.
Scientists at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah are studying four Cretaceous sauropod skulls found in their quarry over the past few years. All four are the same type, from a new species that lived about 100 million years ago. And the skulls are unusually well preserved. (Sauropod skulls aren't single bones, but collections of very delicate bones. When the animals died, the heads usually separated from the bodies and the skulls fell apart or scavengers scattered them. The fragile pieces usually didn't fossilize.)
Sauropods were very common in the middle part of the age of dinosaurs, the Jurassic Period. But they became rarer in the Cretaceous. The skulls may offer valuable clues to the evolution and eventual extinction of this impressive group of beasts.
A lucky break
The paleontologists at Dinosaur National Monument found one extremely well preserved and articulated (not in pieces) skull, a second disarticulated skull (with all its pieces), the snout from a third animal, and the brain case of a fourth. Who knows? There may be many more in the quarry.
How did four skulls end up together? Scientists can't know for sure. The quarry site was a stream or river 100 million years ago. Maybe a herd of dinosaurs was crossing the river and these animals drowned. Or maybe they died during a drought, waiting beside a dried-up river, and a later flash flood washed all the bones together.
The Minnesota connection? Nature's little miracle...
Science Museum paleontologists found this intact juvenile Diplodocus skull at Poison Creek Quarry, near Buffalo, Wyoming. It's about 150 million years old, and from the Jurassic Period, not the Cretaceous. The thin, juvenile bones make this skull even more delicate than other sauropod skulls and an even luckier find. It's so well preserved that you can see a row of small replacement "bud" teeth coming in along the upper jaw.
The remains of other dinosaurs were also found in the quarry—including the adult Diplodocus, one of the Camptosaurs, and the Apatosaurus femur on display in the Dinosaurs and Fossils Gallery. 150 million years ago, the quarry was a flood plain. The bodies of the dinosaurs that died there piled up in quiet backwaters, and sediments buried the bones and preserved them. Because so many skeletons from the quarry were still articulated, we know that the water wasn't moving fast and scavengers didn't disturb the bodies. These conditions also helped to preserve this skull.
A treasure map
This is a section of SMM paleontologist Bruce Erickson's map of the Poison Creek quarry. You can just see the snout of the Diplodocus skull peeking out from under the articulated neck bones of an adult Diplodocus. (The adult skeleton shown in this map is the one mounted in the Dinosaurs and Fossils Gallery.)